The Broader Picture: Grand illusions

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The Independent Culture
THEY CALL it the world's greatest acrobatic show. It is certainly among the most subtle and curious: the Chinese State Circus - one of few official cultural emissaries from China - doesn't feature whips, down-in-the-mouth animals, pin-up girls, or gaudy clowns. When the orchestra strikes up its jangling fanfare (Chinese fiddles, bamboo flutes and zither) the artists perform a slow stately parade. Some cannot but move slowly, cocooned in stiff embroideries, sprouting flags like wings. Gymnasts follow, neatly proportioned men and women, demure in matching slacks. They wave flags and don't just smile, but beam.

In modern China, children dream of becoming acrobats. To belong to one of the country's 200 circuses (all 100 per cent human) carries great status. It has the added allure of being one of the only ways to travel, although for most artistes this will be limited to trips within China. Only nine top troupes are granted the right to perform abroad. Government officers make regular tours of Chinese primary schools to spot early talent, and those chosen are sent to special schools where they study acrobatics, martial arts and circus skills.

The performers in these pictures all trained together and many have known each other since the age of six. Their base is in Changchun, an industrial town about the size of Manchester. Like all Chinese workers, each earns the same: the woman who risks life and limb on the high wire takes home no more than the man who tugs on the rope to hoist the wire into place. On tour abroad, they probably do somewhat better, with a generous subsistence allowance. Yet, to date, no member of the troupe has made any attempt to remain abroad.

When, on their first visit early last year, they were asked whether they would like to stay in Britain, they were unanimous: 'No. It rains too much. And we don't like the food.' They bring two cooks of their own to rustle up Manchurian meals for 50 on site.

With no star system, each performer will happily understudy two or three other acts in case of injuries, which are common. Sexual equality is apparent, too: in the balancing- chair routine, a pyramid of alternately stacked 10 human beings and 10 chairs, women take the strain alongside the men in a heart-stopping display of interlocking muscle and poise. Some performances have a subtlety that at first seems too obscure to hold the attention of the big top: a woman lies on her shoulders and spins bright silk parasols with her feet, mesmerising as a child's kaleidoscope; a smiling man juggles a pair of delicate porcelain vases, treating them as things of beauty. Next he moves on to a heavier sort of cache-pot. Up it goes, to be caught on the back of a forearm, on his head. Then - a garden urn. You can feel its weight, you can see it. Now he moves more slowly. But up it goes, and he catches it, with a heavier thud, on his head, on one edge of its base, steadies it a moment (no hands) then, yes, revolves it on its edge, by giving small jerks of his head.

There is no ringmaster, instead these curious feats are linked by stock characters from the Peking Opera, each taking a brief promenade of the ring. There is a masked pig and a wily yellow monkey god; a posse of generals - women among them - and a comically pompous magistrate with waggling ears and long moustache which he puffs at down his nose. Finally, a pair of young women of the emperor's court waft by. We are beautiful, they seem to say. Isn't that enough?

The Chinese State Circus

appears at Midsummer Meadow, Northampton, from Wed until 3 May. It then joins the Brighton Festival and tours Britain until November (0260 297589 for all venues).

Photographs by Polly Borland

(Photographs omitted)